1890-1905

John Cort, 1908
John Cort, 1908

Following the Great Fire of 1889, only Turner’s Hall remained as a viable venue for touring shows. The Hall, located on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Jefferson, was built as the headquarters for the Seattle Turn Verein, a German-American social organization that promoted physical exercise. The main hall seated 500 people, with seating for another 100 in the gallery. The Hall had been used only occasionally for theatrical entertainments prior to the fire. The First Regimental Armory on Union Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, which also survived the fire, had a large hall that could be used for entertainment when needed.

George Frye decided against rebuilding Frye’s Opera House after the fire. Instead, he took over Turner Hall to host the productions that had been scheduled for Frye’s Opera House, including James O’Neill, the father of Eugene O’Neill, in Monte Cristo, and Katie Emmett and her company in Waifs of New York.

In September 1890, Turner’s Hall was renovated and reopened as the Seattle Opera House. The renovations included a new curtain, incandescent lights, additional dressing rooms and a larger stage. The opening night of the Seattle Opera House featured Daniel Frohman’s production of The Prince and the Pauper with Elsie Leslie, William Faversham and Fanny Ware. Production highlights over the next few years at the Seattle Opera House included Thomas W. Keene in Richard III, Richelieu, Merchant of Venice and Louis XI; Clara Morris in her starring role in the melodrama, Camille; comic actor Frank Daniels in Little Puck; and Daniel Frohman’s Lyceum Theatre Company in The Wife and The Charity Ball.

John Cort’s new Standard Theatre, which had opened on January 9, 1888, was a victim of the Great Fire. The ever resourceful Cort, undeterred by the loss, quickly erected a tent on Front Street between Madison and Spring where he could offer entertainments. Within a few months, he had built a new Standard Theatre, which featured vaudeville and variety shows, comedy and burlesque.

Advertisement for Mind Reader  Anna Eve Fay  Seattle PI April 26, 1896
Advertisement for Mind Reader, Anna Eva Fay, Seattle PI, April 26, 1896

In the new Standard Theater, audiences were entertained by mind reader Anna Eva Fay, the whistling prima donna Alice Shaw, and Professor Bristol’s “Educated Horses.” The local papers weighed in on these entertainments reporting that while “a large number of people are heard to say Miss Fay is a fake, still they are totally unable to explain just how she accomplishes her work” (Seattle P-I, May 18, 1896). The Seattle Times wrote that Professor Bristol’s “Educated Horses understand what is said to them with an intelligence that is almost human...no such horses were ever seen before and no one should fail to visit the Seattle Theater during the week” (Seattle Times, June 26, 1896). Fisher’s Vaudeville featured the “World Famous Whistling Prima Donna, Mrs. Alice J. Shaw,” about whom the Seattle Times noted, “The novelty of a beautiful woman whistling her way into the good graces of her audiences was the attraction at the Seattle Theatre and the generous applause and numerous recalls given Mrs. Alice Shaw were proofs evident that she met with great success” (Seattle P-I, August 19, 1894).

A more sophisticated theatrical experience was in store for Seattle audiences when Madam Sarah Bernhardt performed in Sardou’s Fedora at Cordray’s Theatre in 1891 (the remodeled Madison Street Theatre opened by John Cordray in October 1890). Although the “Divine Sarah,” as she was often called, performed the play in French, the Seattle audience of 1,500 was apparently thrilled and responded with “frequent and hearty applause” (Seattle P-I, September 25, 1891).

Photo of Ida Fuller, vaudeville actress
Photo of Ida Fuller, vaudeville actress

Perhaps the most significant theatrical development in the early 1890’s was the opening of the Seattle Theater at the northeast corner of Third and Cherry in 1892. As the Seattle P-I wrote: "The opening of the Seattle Theatre is an event of more than ordinary importance to the people of this city. It marks a distinct step in the advancement of this community in culture, intelligence and refinement. Ever since the great fire of 1889 Seattle has been sadly in need of such a place of amusement as the taste of its people demanded" (Seattle P-I, December 5, 1892).

Seating 1300 people, the theatre had the latest scene shifting devices, thirteen dressing rooms, eight property rooms, and was lit by electricity. The highly regarded theatre attracted some of the leading Shakespearean actors including Julia Marlowe (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) and Frederick Warde and Lewis James (Julius Caesar). Undoubtedly, the appearance of the great English actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in Merchant of Venice in 1893 was a high point for the city. In a review entitled ”Irving and Terry. Theatre Packed From Pit To Dome Greets Them,” the Seattle P-I reviewer wrote:

"In the annals of theatrical productions of this city the presentation of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Seattle Theater last evening will ever be a memorable one. It is fitting that the finest assemblage of men and women which ever gathered under roof in this city should greet the foremost actor and actress of the English race. In thus honoring these great artists Seattle has done herself proud, and the spectacle which was presented from the stage was one to quicken the soul, stir the heart and call forth the highest efforts of the most resplendent genius. Every seat in the theater was filled with standing humanity. Fully one half of the audience were ladies, and this proportion held good in all parts of the house even to the highest tier of seats in the gallery. In the boxes, parquet and dress circle, with scarcely a dozen exceptions, all of the ladies and gentlemen were in evening dress, while the same was true of one-half those in the balcony. (Seattle P-I, September 21, 1893)

Grand Opera House program
Grand Opera House program,
December 7, 1903

The Seattle Theatre was the lead theatre for road shows through the rest of the 1890’s, but its fortunes changed when John Cort opened the Grand Opera House at 217 Cherry in 1900. The Grand quickly attracted major touring productions. In 1903, for example, the Grand featured Mrs. Patrick Campbell in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Maurice Barrymore and Leslie Carter in Heart of Maryland, Alberta Gallatin in Ibsen’s Ghosts and an elaborate production of Ben-Hur, complete with eight horses in the chariot race scene.

The system for booking road shows changed when national syndicates in the East created theatrical circuits to coordinate bookings throughout the country. The syndicates coordinated the booking of shows to simplify the logistics for performers and theatre owners. This system insured that tours of the West would be profitable for stars and their companies. In return, the syndicates received a portion of the box office proceeds. Although this new system initially helped to facilitate shows coming to the West, complaints eventually rose about the quality of the productions.

John Cort, an astute businessman, had foreseen the need for such a system and had developed his own circuit for box houses in the Northwest. After 1900, he signed an agreement with Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, the most successful Eastern booking agents. As owner of the Grand Opera House, Cort knew that this theatre would be a major destination for road shows from New York. Indeed, the Grand reigned supreme until the Moore Theatre (opened in 1907), and the Metropolitan Theatre (opened in 1911) began to compete with the Grand for road shows.

This period also marked the arrival of Alexander Pantages, soon to be a key person on the Seattle theatre scene. Pantages became an impresario, vaudeville circuit owner, and movie mogul whose empire stretched across most of the west coast in the early 20th century. Born in Greece, Pantages made his way to San Francisco and Alaska during the Gold Rush. He eventually landed in Dawson where he partnered with Klondike Kate, vaudeville actress, saloon-dancer, and brothel operator. Their Orpheum Theatre was highly successful.  In 1902, with $10,000, he moved to Seattle where he built The Crystal Theatre, a vaudeville house. In many ways, vaudeville productions resembled variety shows. They were made up of a number of “acts” such as skits, musical numbers, gymnasts, comic monologues, and so forth. In 1904, he built a second theatre which he named The Pantages, laying the groundwork for his future success with the Pantages Circuit.